Buying casually

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Earlier this year a weekly contemporary dealt with three different ways of buying a used car—through small advertisements, from a dealer, or at an auction sale. There is yet another method, that of buying a vehicle advertised for sale at the roadside.

I did just that, the other day. Usually all one sees in this category are sad A35s, A40s and Populars outside pre-fabs or on the front pad of terraced houses, put up for sale by owners who either don’t care greatly whether they dispose of them or not, or who are so hard-up and in need of ready cash that they cannot afford to advertise, even in the showcase of the local general store.

The only out-of-the-ordinary cars I have seen with FOR SALE notices on them in recent times when driving between office and home have been a presentable black Daimler Conquest, marked up at £190, and a white 1955 Daimler Century for £99, which, approached closely, was seen to have been beset by the Demon Rust. The former went reasonably quickly but the latter, at a filling station on a busy main road, was there for ages, indeed, still was, unsold, when last I looked, the price down to £75. And then there was this Riley.

It was gleaming white and marked up on a piece of corrugated paper at £200. When next I passed the public holiday was over and the figure had been reduced.

Why I wanted it is hard to say. It would be a useful hack for the dogs or for temporarily-motorless members of the family. It would do to tow my Riley “Silverstone”. It might form the second of a collection of pre-single-cam Rileys, or testing the tar-remover and touching up paint we sometimes receive in the office. Knowing that I really wanted another pre-war Blue Diamond and feeling that the hidden eyes of the entire Riley Register were watching me, I stopped to investigate.

Finding I hadn’t a cheque book with me, I told the owner, who said he needed a bigger car and was seeking a quick sale as he required the space occupied by this white 2 1/2-litre saloon, I would take a chance and return in a few days. “May be gone”, he said, “someone telephoned to say he’s coming to see it on Thursday”. It was then that I acted foolishly! Being in the usual frantic hurry I gave the gentleman a fiver to hold it for me, without querying anything other than that there was a six-months-to-run M.o.T. Certificate, and merely giving the thing a cursory look-over—it wasn’t taxed, so couldn’t be driven, but as I resumed my journey I realised that I hadn’t so much as heard the engine run, let alone check whether it was an early RMB or a later RMF model (see “Shopping For A Riley”, Motor Sport, November, 1970). I didn’t even try to beat the vendor down over the price.

I attempted to rectify this silly situation by asking a daughter, who was going that way the next day, to call in with a cheque but only to part with it if the Riley’s engine ran, the exhaust wasn’t too smoky, and the oil pressure reasonable. She delivered the cheque all right, but the owner being away could tell me nothing about the car except that “it looks nice”.

The point of this story is that all turned out satisfactorily. The car, when taxed and collected, commenced on the starter button. It shows a steady 35/40 lb. oil pressure when hot, 10 amps charge, never exceeds 70°C, runs sweetly, and the exhaust system is quiet. The paint, applied over the original black, is smart and sound, except where it has been touched up, probably with Valspar, to obliterate the result of some scrape along the near-side, and the radiator grille shows signs of having been straightened out at some time. The interior headlining is clean, the upholstery obviously original but untorn and tidy, and the doors shut with a reassuring click.

The “leather”-covered roof, a feature of these cars (but real leather only on pre-1948 Rileys), shows slight rubbing on one hind quarter and about two inches of slightly ripped stitching near the front, otherwise it is in excellent fettle. The plating is bright, but with pock-marks on the bumpers. All the glass is clear, the interior woodwork has been rubbed down by the last owner, who runs a woodworking business, the original Wipac headlamp glasses are as new and the tyres, as I noticed when I parted with that fiver, all display an impressive depth of tread. The front wheels wear new-looking British Bergougnan Comet covers, one rear a Dunlop Super Taxi Remould, the opposite one a Homerton Remould, adequate for the car’s sedate cruising gait. The spare, too, has tread. They are, moreover, man-sized tyres (6.00 x 16), of a size still obtainable. The Good-turn battery has further life in it.

All the instruments—ammeter, oil-gauge, petrol gauge, Jaeger speedometer, and thermometer, function, but not the clock. The total mileage figure stood at 5,000 below the intriguing hundred-thousand, so I don’t suppose it has ever been turned back. The horn blows, the semaphore-type direction indicators signal and self-cancel, and coming home in the rain I was glad to find the wipers effective. The brakes are excellent, the steering taut, although solid spokes replace the “sprung ones” on the steering wheel, and the ride is good.

With such a car you get something of the vintage appeal—a big steering wheel, a view over a long sides-opening bonnet, separate front wings on which sidelamps are visible. You sit on real leather, use a short central gear-lever (although an umbrella-handle parking brake), and, in this early Riley, look at circular instruments, in a wooden facia. There is a neat, lever-style hand-throttle and a (stiff) advance-and-retard, the former presumably some enthusiastic owner’s addition, perhaps because he found the throttle-knob on the dash insufficiently sensitive.

When I looked in the log book I discovered that my “new” Riley was initially registered in October, 1949, perhaps ordered at the Motor Show. This meant I had an RMB model, with divided prop-shaft and hydro-mechanical brakes. But early specimens of 1940/50 cars are probably better than later versions. This may not have been true in the vintage or pvt period—see relevant correspondence between customer and Company in Peter Hull’s “Alvis History”!—but after the war any innovations were likely to have been introduced to benefit the manufacturing budget rather than the purchaser.

Anyway, I find the earlier Riley quite possible to live with, and it does have the bigger inlet valves, which raised the power output to 100 b.h.p. from the 80.5 x 120 mm. four-cylinder power unit, the long stroke of which would have pleased Louis Coatalen when he was sparring with Laurence Pomeroy, Senr. over this aspect of engine design. There is torsion-bar i.f.s., rack-and-pinion steering, twin fuel fillers and the famous “Coventry Riley” valve gear.

In one of those “Letters from Europe” I was asked whether a 2 1/2-litre Riley wasn’t one-litre worse than a 1 1/2-litre? It’s a point of view, of course. But considering what I paid, it seems to me to be a fair bargain. It amuses me to think that a Riley in similar order would probably be advertised by the Trade for considerably more than twice what I gave for mine. Are there any other cases of satisfactory cars bought casually in the 1970s for similarly low sums?—W. B.